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Kancheepuram : Classroom Democracy And Community Action


According to Wikipedia Tamil Nadu is one of the most literate states in India. The state's literacy rate was 80.33% in 2011, which is above the national average. A survey conducted by the Industry body Assocham ranks Tamil Nadu top among Indian states with about 100% Gross Enrollment Ratio (GER) in primary and upper primary education.


1 The Problem: Culture and Education

The report of a survey by Samakalvi Iyakkam-Tamilnadu, a child’s rights movement, on the state of education in Adi Dravidar communities in and around Kanchepuram, was the subject of an article in The Hindu (1st April 2015). Adi Dravida (or Adi Dravidar) is a term used by the state of Tamil Nadu to denote their Dalit peoples since 1914 At the time of the 2011 Census of India, they made up about 18% of the state's population. Dalit, meaning "broken/scattered" in Sanskrit and Hindi, is a term mostly used for the castes in India that have been subjected to ‘untouchability’.

The Samakalvi Iyakkam survey cites the lack of facilities in Adi Dravidar schools in northern districts, and a poor student-teacher ratio is leading to high dropout rates.

According to the Adi Dravidar Welfare Department’s budget document (2014-2015), the State has 798 primary schools, with a student population of 62,110. In the 81 high schools, the population is only 19,465. What is worse, one third of the students drop out between classes V and X.

Activists say poor infrastructure, lack of teachers and desire for English education leads to an exodus of students. An Adi Dravidar school teacher from Nagapattinam district said the schools are in remote areas and teachers prefer neighbourhood schools. Even those who have cleared the TET exams have not yet been appointed, leading to more problems.

Samakalvi Iyakkam surveyed 36 of 435 schools in six northern districts and found the conditions in the schools were well below acceptable standards. For example, in middle and high schools, girls discontinued due to lack toilets and water facilities.

The survey has revealed the funds released by Central Government have remained unused. Why not put the funds to good use, instead of diverting them to other projects,” asks the NGO’s general secretary Chella. Selvakumar.

While the Central government had released Rs. 14,757 lakh under the special component plan, the State government had used only Rs. 8,838 lakh. The number of beneficiaries under the plan had fallen from 1,54,040 in 2005-2006 to 19,525 as on February 06, 2014. This is a call to appoint supervisors to check the money is used correctly.

The NGO wanted the government to appoint more teachers for the single-teacher schools, which had over 100 students. “Schools with 115 students in the primary section have only one teacher. Many middle and high schools do not have teachers for science, social sciences and mathematics. The solution for schools with low student strength is not merger, but improving enrolment” says A. Ambrose, State coordinator. He pointed out that the dropouts are engaged as child labourers.

The activists demand that the government appoint a supervisor for every 10 schools and allocate money from the local development funds of MPs and MLAs for improvement of the Adi Dravidar schools.

A survey done in 6 Districts:

Chennai, Kancheepuram, Tiruvallur, Tiruvannamalai, Vellore, Villupuram revealed...

  • Primary school children sit on floor 16%

  • High / Higher sec schools have no benches 36%

  • Toilets don't have water facility

  • No separate toilet facilities 33%

  • Schools don't have safe drinking water 82%

  • Schools do not have libraries 58%

  • School have no playgrounds 66%

  • Schools do not have kitchens

The charity proposed a short term solution:

Appoint teachers according to an effective student teacher ratio

Upgrade 100 primary, 10 middle and high schools

Provide bore wells, RO plant and lavatory sumps in all schools

Appoint subject teachers in all middle and high schools


2 The Problem: Ecology and Culture

The fact that Dalits have been denied any permanent right over land or territory has produced the present abhorrent mismatch between ecology and culture. They are completely dependent upon the owners and controllers of the means of production and livelihood. It is an undeniable fact that Dalits have suffered displacement from land through the ages. The land occupied by them has always been seized at the flimsiest excuse, forcibly or through economic strangling. The right to hold land - even homestead land - of these groups, has always been tenuous at best. This is slavery by cultural containment. Civilisation is the generation of economic surplus to promote entrepreneurship education, and creativity. Where does this place the poor entrepreneurs of Kancheepuram who are living in abject poverty a few kilometres from the temple culture that lit the flame of Hinduism.


3 The Democratic Input

The contemporary picture of the chronic deficit of Indian education at its worst is revealed in the annual reports of two aid charities working with children, schools and their communities in Kancheepuram. Their approaches to improve the lot of young Dalits are the 2017 annual reports of Children Watch and Assisi Aid Projects Inc. Two project areas from these reports have been singled out because they are funding remarkably similar children-led bonding and communication channels between school and the communities served by the school.

The Children Watch Project

.Awareness on Eco and Environment Preservation

Children Watch, had undertaken awareness creation on Eco and Environment Preservation among the school students in Kancheepuram and Uttiramerur blocks. 540 school students from 9 schools in Kancheepuram and Uttiramerurblocks, had participated in the awareness programs. IEC materials on WATSAN, Green Cover, Solid Waste Management, Waste water Management, Disaster Risk Reduction etc had been prepared and distributed to the school children. Eco Clubs, with 12 students in each school as members, totaling 108 members, had been organized in 9 schools and the children, fortified with awareness on eco and environment preservation, had planted seedlings in the schools campuses and also promote garbage free, clean and healthy environment at the schools. The school students became the peer educators to the members of their families, friends and the community members in motivating to ensure their villages garbage free with clean and healthy environment.

The Assisi Project

Integrated Skill Development for Disadvantaged Children

The Child Parliament initiative engages children aged 11 to 16 years of age, while children of younger ages are not catered for. Children are able to articulate on Child Rights, however the component of Child Protection is seen as an emerging need (due to alcoholism). It is recommended to promote initiatives like Children`s groups, Child Protection Units, Life Skills Education that have greater scope for inclusion and age specific engagement. Hence the capacities of the Community leaders, Children, Animators and Staff need to be built.

Children Parliaments (CPs) have helped in creating social awareness among children and they are engaged in village development activities like planting trees, cleaning public places, creating public awareness on evils of plastic etc.,. Being part of the Children Parliament the children have been empowered and have gained knowledge on Parliament procedures, learnt about child rights, child protection, gender, and environmental protection. Children mentioned that there is better health and hygiene in the community as open defecation has reduced as a result of toilets being constructed in the communities and increased awareness on the usage. Streets are cleaner now and communities have become more child friendly. Due to the contribution of the Tuition Tenters (TCs) the Parents and school teachers reported that the children have developed Learning skills and improved School performance. In a few communities children are involved in Savings program and it helps the children to meet their needs. The study on Learning outcomes among children both among boys and girls (refer dis-aggregated data presented main report) who are enrolled in the TCs versus the children those who are not attending the TCs proved that the performance of the former group was better than the latter except in Addition. There is significant difference in language, subtraction and multiplication outcomes. This shows that learning at the Tuition centre is contributing in enhancing the Learning outcomes of the children.

Engagement of Children: Key Findings: -

Only selected children in the village have been exposed to the concept of Child Parliament (CP) as the activity is age appropriate. In Kovendakurichi village the the CP sessions are conducted in the school (for children in 7th or 8th standards) and not in the community. - Children have some knowledge on Child Rights and Protection, but it was felt it has not been rolled out in a formal way. -

Child Protection Units (CPU) are absent or nonfunctional. These are mandatory as per the Assisi and DFAT protocols. -

There is need for Children, parents and Animators to be equipped, trained and capacities built in the area of Child Protection to ensure Child Wellbeing. For eg., there is need for a Child Protection Unit to be formed in the communities and Animators need to be equipped to handle protection issues, counsel and guide the children and their parents. -

As there are no Child Protection Units (CPU) there is no formal system of reporting incidences of child abuse.

Recommendations: -

Child Protection Units to be in place in all communities. All the Children, Parents, Animators and staff to be formally trained in Child Protection so that there is zero tolerance to child abuse in any form (emotional, neglect, sexual, physical, domestic and family violence). This awareness will help in raising an alarm, reporting and addressing issues relating to child abuse. -

To address stress among children and to enable them to enjoy their childhood, the project could roll-out interventions like Life Skills Education (LSE), Play for Peace in networking with NGOs who have expertise in the said interventions.


4 School/Community Democracies

It is interesting and significant that the two charities working to meet the needs of young people and adults in Kancheeporum have independentlyi settled upon the ideas behind school/community democracies as the route to actions for improving well-being in both school and community. These ideas are expressed in peer educators, animators, child protection units, parent classes and children parliaments.

The need for a children’s democracy to underpin civic actions is not new. Democracy must be experienced to be learned and there is a democratic deficit in contemporary classrooms world wide.

As English aristocracy was giving way to democracy in the 19th century, Matthew Arnold investigated popular education in France and other countries to determine what form of education suited a democratic age. Arnold wrote that "the spirit of democracy" is part of "human nature itself", which engages in "the effort to affirm one's own develop one's own existence fully and freely.

During the industrial age, John Dewey argued that children should not all be given the same pre-determined curriculum. In ‘Democracy and Education’ he develops a philosophy of education based on democracy. He argues that while children should be active participants in the creation of their education, and while children must experience democracy to learn democracy, they need adult guidance to develop into responsible adults

Amy Gutmann argues in ‘Democratic Education’ that in a democratic society, there is a role for everyone in the education of children. These roles are best agreed upon through deliberative democracy.]

The journal “Democracy and Education’ investigates "the conceptual foundations, social policies, institutional structures, and teaching/learning practices associated with democratic education." By "democratic education" they mean "educating youth...for active participation in a democratic society.

Yaacov Hecht claims that the Democratic Education, being an education that prepares for life in a democratic culture, it is the missing piece in the intricate puzzle which is the democratic state.

So much for the top down approach for educational reform.


5 A Bottom-up Global Democracy of Children

The Earth Summit, held in June 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, was the largest meeting of world leaders ever. Together these leaders created a document called AGENDA 21, a blueprint for saving Planet Earth. After the conference ended, thousands of young people from nearly 100 countries, funded by the UN and other international agencies,worked together in an extraordinary effort to find out exactly what was agreed in this important document. Their efforts produced a unique book, designed, written and illustrated by children, for children, to inspire young people all over the world to join the rescue mission ‘to save planet Earth from environmental degradation’.

The UN Secretary General of the UN at that time was Boutros Boutros-Ghali. He wrote:

“I sincerely hope that this book will help children from all countries better to understand and appreciate the fragile world in which we live and to dedicate themselves to do everything possible to protect and enhance this Earth. ” .

As they edited the book the production team thought about how to organise the thousands of young people who had had an input to the project. They put it this way.

“How on earth could 2.5 billion human beings under the age of 18 be connected in a way that would. he democratic without being bureaucratic? How could we enter in the adults’ decision—making process without starting to be as boring as them? The first thing to do is to select issues not representatives. That way, we can all choose what we want to talk about, after which the question of who does the talking is less important. The first place to organize is in our schools. Each Rescue Mission will start with a conference Where we would decide the issues and elect a small action council to see things get done. Like the schools’ children’s councils in France, we will have regular access to local government and work with them, perhaps to organize the Local Agenda 21”.

Their solution was to promote a network from schools that would would carry a Global Democracy of Children through the various levels of government in partnerships with NGOs.

Their aim was for the schools to help the communities they served make local action plans for improving local well-being (Fig 1).

The book ‘Rescue Mission Planet Earth’ failed to galvanise the adults as teachers and politicians to change an education system that had been d esigned by the westerm powers long ago to serve colonialism. Also, in 1994 the Internet and social media were in an embryonic stage and not available to provide a platform for young people to gather globally and voice a new educational framework to promote prosperity for all without denuding humanity’s ecosystemp services.

.Fig 1 Networking a global democracy of children

The new framework has to be the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and the 2930 goals for a sustainable global economy The Assessment marks the advent of cultural ecology where humankind works with nature instead of battling against against it.

No one has defined the philosophy of cultural ecology better than David Orr who in 1994 set out its new educational imperatives.

Those now being educated will have to do what we, the present generation, have been unable or unwilling to do: stabilise world population; stabilise and then reduce the emission of greenhouse gases; protect biological diversity; reverse the destruction of forests everywhere; and conserve soils. They must learn how to use energy and materials with great efficiency. They must learn how to utilise solar energy in all its forms. They must rebuild the economy in order to eliminate waste and pollution. They must learn how to manage renewable resources for the long run. They must begin the great work of repairing as much as possible, the damage done to Earth in the past 200 years of industrialisation. And they must do all this while they reduce worsening social and racial inequities. No generation has ever faced a more daunting agenda”. (Orr, 1994, p.26).

Fig 2 Common ground of a school/community democracy

A School/Community Democracy Program incorporates two essential components, civic character and civic survice .

Civic Character includes social and emotional skills, the principles and practices of democratic participation and the values and dispositions of an effective responsible citizen.

These skills and values are vital for successful relationships and participation in school, organisations, community and career, as well as political engagement.

• Value and demonstrate honesty, personal integrity and respect for others;

• Understand and effectively manage their emotions and behavior;

• Act toward others with empathy and caring;

• Resolve differences in constructive ways;

• Understand how to participate in the political process and democratic institutions that shape public policy;

• Exercise leadership for social justice;

• Work to counter prejudice and discrimination;

• Think critically and creatively about local, state and national issues, and world events;

• Contribute time and resources to building community and solving problems.

Civic Service includes the understanding of a community/national/world problem and planning and implementing a project to help solve that problem, in the context of learning and practicin the knowledge, values and skills of citizenship.

Civic Service involves student groups devising and operating an action plan for tackling a local issue by :

• Identifying a current issue that they believe needs to be addressed.

• Researching the issue from multiple perspectives, with help from community


• Choosing a potential solution and presenting a rationale for their choice.

• Planning and implement a project to promote their solution.

• Reflecting on learning about themselves, their team, their issue and civic responsibility.

• Giving a formal presentation of the project, what was learned, and conclusions.

Through this process students will experience working together to achieve a common purpose. They will demonstrate an understanding of their civic responsibility and contribute meaningful solutions to their community. Students will become civic service leaders, caring for their school, community, nation and world.

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